Is Tripura aiding the Hinduisation of tribals by letting ISKCON run state schools?

Entrusting the running of government schools to a religious organisation violates the educational and cultural rights of tribal communities. Sandeep Rasal/SOPA Images/LightRocket /Getty Images
24 September, 2019

“From the Far East. Stories from the Woods. The Journey Within,” read the opening text of a slickly produced promotional video on the website of the India Tribal Care Trust. The ITCT is an arm of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, or ISKCON, a Hindu religious organisation that promotes the worship of Krishna. The ITCT describes itself as an “initiative of ISKCON to care for the tribal people in India.”

“Our village was in a pathetic condition,” a member of the tribal community from the Chota Jameera region on the Assam-Mizoram border, said in the video. “We thought there are many gods and used to worship spirits as well…The rituals were done for personal gains and to fulfil selfish desires. Alcohol and different animal sacrifices were used as offerings.”

The frame then cut to a family—a man, a woman and two children sitting in their bamboo hut. “We lived like animals,” the man said. “Earlier we used to kill pigs to sell their meat and we also made alcohol to make a living,” the woman added. The tribal people were then shown chanting Vedic mantras, singing Hindu religious hymns, and talking about their discovery of bliss. They said they had stopped killing pigs and making alcohol since ISKCON came into their lives. “I am a soul,” the first narrator said, who was now shown sporting a sandalwood tilak from his forehead to his nose. He said that he had discovered his purpose in life after associating with ISKCON. He added that he now treks to other remote villages, spreading “Krishna consciousness” among his fellow community members.

According to its website, the ITCT aims to provide “educational care, social care, health care, spiritual care, and emotional care,” to tribal communities, as part of its care initiative. This month, the organisation signed a memorandum of understanding with the Tripura government to run 20 public schools located in remote and tribal areas of the state. In a press conference in June, the Tripura education minister Ratan Lal Nath said that the Tripura council of ministers had “decided to hand over” 20 schools to ISKCON, “who agreed to provide quality education in those schools.” These include 13 closed schools which had no students and seven low enrolment schools which had no more than ten students.

Earlier this year, the Tripura government decided to shut down several schools due to very low attendance of students. “When the government decided to close down schools, we approached them with the proposal to run these schools,” HG Sridham Govinda Das, the chief coordinator of the ITCT told me. “The government accepted the proposal.”

According to Nath, the ITCT will run the schools for five years. He added that the terms and conditions include that there should be at least 30 students in each school, the schools must be affiliated to the Central Board of Secondary Education or the Indian Certification of Secondary Education, and they should follow the guidelines of the Right to Education Act. The MoU specifies that the medium of instruction in the schools must be English, and that the schools must follow the curriculum set by the National Council of Educational Research and Training, a government organisation that publishes school textbooks.

Das told me that apart from the regular syllabus, the ITCT will include “extracurricular activities like farming classes, robotics for high school students.” He added, “We will have value education classes, not hardcore spiritual classes. We will bring in our learning, like what we could learn from stories from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Not hardcore spiritual, but whatever is useful in our lives.”

According to its website, ISKCON follows the “Gaudiya-Vaishnava sampradāya, a monotheistic tradition within the Vedic or Hindu culture.” The “bhakti-yoga tradition” followed by the organisation teaches “that the ultimate goal for all living beings is to reawaken their love for Lord Krishna.” A 2014 promotional video on ISKCON’s tribal-care initiative spoke of plans to send volunteers to “train tribal people in deity worship and brahmanical culture.” It further said that, “tribal life is perfectly suited to Krishna consciousness.” As part of its “spiritual care” initiative among tribal communities, ISKCON volunteers conduct hari-naamsankirtans, or congregational devotional chanting, distribute jaapmaalas, a string of beads to count religious chants,and copies of the Bhagavad Gita.

ISKCON’s work follows in the footsteps of Christian missionary activities in tribal areas. Further, over the last few decades, a plethora of right-wing groups such as the VanvasiKalyan Ashram, an RSS-affiliated organisation that works in tribal areas, have taken up religious proselytisation among tribal communities.

The Tripura Bharatiya Janata Party government’s decision is in tune with the right-wing project of bringing tribal communities into the Hindu fold through educational, cultural and welfare programmes which enjoy state patronage. The RSS and its affiliated organisations have been actively pursuing this in the Adivasi belts of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Orissa and Gujarat for many decades. Their activities expanded to the north east in the 1950s.

In 2005, a citizens’ inquiry committee visited the Dang district in Gujarat to study the Hinduisation of Adivasi communities in the region. “The efforts of the Sangh organisations is to see that adivasis lose their identity, culture and traditions of worshiping nature without being part of any mainstream religion, by asserting that they are Hindus,” the committee report said. The report noted that the religion of “Dangiadivasis is animistic, with varied gods and goddesses like animals, plants, trees and hills, the forces of nature like rain, mountain, ghosts and spirits, including tigers, cows, serpents, the moon, and gods of corn, the wind and forests. They are not Hindus, at least not subscribing to the brahmanical mainstream traditions of the faith.”

Religious preaching in tribal areas and at private schools run by religious organisations is not new. However, this time, in a precedent-setting move, it is the Tripura government that has decided to hand over public schools to a religious body. Entrusting the running of government schools to a religious organisation that clearly states their mission of Brahmanical preaching is problematic and violates the educational and cultural rights of tribal communities enshrined in the Constitution.

The need to preserve tribal culture has been a major thrust of the Constitution and the national policy on Scheduled tribes since Independence, though studies have shown that most of the “development” programmes that have attempted to “integrate” and “assimilate” tribal communities into the mainstream have instead resulted in their socio-cultural alienation. The Articles 29 and 30 of the Constitution give minorities, which includes tribal communities, the right to conserve their distinct language, script and culture. They imply that the state should not impose any outside culture upon tribal communities.

“It is clearly a violation of the cultural rights of tribals,” the advocate and tribal-rights activist Laslu Soma Nagoti told me. “To start with there is very little representation of tribal culture in our textbooks. Our language and culture are ignored, even in popular culture.” He added that even “tribal leaders who fought in the freedom struggle” and “made valuable contributions to the society,” are hardly mentioned in the existing curriculum.

Nagoti, who is based in Gadchiroli in Maharashtra, said that, “Even in many state board textbooks we hardly find any mention of festivals or gods of tribals. The adivasis worship mountains, trees, rivers, and flowers. The gods seen in photos like Ram and Hanuman has no meaning. But these things are introduced into their culture. Identity, tradition, idols, ideology, and thoughts of tribals are suppressed by introducing these things.”

ISKCON had initially proposed to run 53 schools in Tripura, including primary schools. However, while the state government handles upper-primary, secondary and higher-secondary education, lower-primary education in tribal areas comes under the purview of the Tripura Tribal Autonomous District Council. The TTADC is an autonomous council constituted under the sixth schedule of the Constitution to protect “the social, economic, and cultural interests of the tribal population.” So far, all the schools given to the ITCT—seven in West Tripura district, one in Gomati, two in Khowai, three in Sepahijala and seven in the South Tripura districts—are state government-run schools. The rest are schools under the TTADC.

A TTADC representative, who requested anonymity, told me that the government has suggested that some other schools under the TTADC be handed over to the ITCT. “The proposal has come from the government,” a TTADC in-charge said. “We are still in the process of discussing this. We will reach a decision soon.” The Tripura state education department did not respond to queries on how and why ISKCON was chosen to run the schools.

Opposition leaders have criticised the government’s move to privatise state schools. The former Tripura chief minister and leader of opposition Manik Sarkar had urged the incumbent chief minister Biplab Kumar Deb to reverse the decision. Sarkar wrote to Deb and said the government should withdraw the plan to safeguard the interest of students, as guaranteed by the Indian Constitution. He said that the state government should not shy away from discharging its responsibilities, and that the decision undermined the concept of “education for all.”

According to Bijan Dhar, the chairman of the Left Front in Tripura, the unavailability of teachers and the lack of efforts to ensure regular attendance of students are cited as reasons for low turnouts in schools in remote forest areas. “The government should take measures to rectify these issues,” Dhar told me. “If there are administrative issues, those should be solved by the government, and not by handing them over to private organisations. No government school should be given to the private parties.” Dhar added that any plan to include primary schools in the list would be “an intrusion on the autonomy of TTADC.”

The ITCT’s portrayal of tribal culture, as illustrated in its promotional videos, has its lineage in the nationalist approach to tribal education since the early post-Independence period, which saw tribes as “primitive people” who need to be “civilised.” A 2014 report of the High-level Committee on Socio-economic, Health and Educational Status of Tribal Communities in India noted that even central government’s schemes, under the five-year plans, which gave special attention to tribal education in residential schools, were based on the view that “the tribal people were savage and wild, who needed to be civilised by the means of education outside the tribal social and cultural life.” Residential schools called ashrams and sanskar kendras, or culture centers, aimed to “re-orient children in upper-caste Hindu cultural norms,” the report said.

The Dhebar Commission—set up in 1960 to report on the welfare of Scheduled Tribes—had also addressed some of these issues. It suggested the use of tribal language and cultural resources, such as folklore, songs and history in teaching tribal communities. According to the commission, this required the re-orientation of teachers, revision of curriculum and development of instructional materials. The teachers needed complete familiarity with tribal life, culture and language. It recommended the appointment of teachers from the tribal community and the opening of teacher-training centres in the tribal heartlands. The National Curriculum Framework, which provides guidelines on teaching and syllabi in Indian schools, recommended the same measures in 2005.

Even the National Education Policy, first in 1986 and then 1992, had insisted on developing curriculum based on the socio-cultural milieu of tribal communities, and of providing instructional materials in tribal languages. The National Policy, 1986 said that “The curriculum at all stages will be designed to create an awareness of the rich cultural identity of the tribal people as also their enormous creative talent.” The latest draft NEP also noted that curriculum design and pedagogy often excludes tribals, and the foremost issue is that teachers do not understand or relate to their culture or language. But according to Das, it is difficult to find teachers at all, let alone from the tribal community, to teach in remote areas. “Volunteers of the trust and other wings of ISKCON will teach the kids,” he said.

ISKCON’s insistence on following Brahmanic norms is well illustrated by the way it runs mid-day meal schemes in schools across 12 states. The Akshaya Patra Foundation, a non-profit run by ISKCON, has partnered with the mid-day meal scheme in these states to provide lunches to school students. However, it has refused to include eggs, onion and garlic in the food, going against the recommended nutritional guidelines of the scheme. The NGO refused to include these items based on the argument that it can only provide a satvik diet—“a diet based on Ayurveda and yoga literature.” The Tripura government has also entrusted ISKCON to run mid-day meals schemes in the 20 schools handed over to it.

Even as the ITCT’s promotional videos show people from tribal communities in Tripura wearing the tilak, ISKCON volunteers installing Krishna icons inside their homes, teaching them to chant Vedic mantras, and discouraging them from eating meat, the voice over on the videos insist that ISKCON helps tribals revive their culture.

“We are not Hindu. Just like how our language is written in [official documents] as Hindi, our religion is also written as Hindu,” Nagoti told me. “This is all an effort to bring us under the fold of one particular religion.”